The Wall Street Journal’s recent blog post “Don’t cleat the boss” had me simultaneously wincing and laughing at people’s accounts of company picnics and parties. Those kinds of events, which include everything from huge parties funded by your organization to a small backyard barbeque that you host for your team, are apparently full of opportunities for employees to embarrass themselves and their employers. Fortunately, whether you’re throwing the party or attending it, there are precautions you can take to ensure that your team isn’t the subject of watercooler gossip—or, worse, a viral YouTube video—the day after the festivities. Follow these tips to prepare for a drama-free office party:
- Set expectations. Don’t condescendingly lecture your adult employees about what’s appropriate and what’s not at an office party, but do remind them that it’s still a work event. Remember that what’s common sense to you might not be obvious to all employees, especially new hires. At the conclusion of a team meeting, say something like “As you know, the office picnic is coming up next weekend. If this is your first one, you’re in for a treat. They’re a lot of fun. Dress comfortably, like you might on a casual Friday, and practice your horseshoe toss. This department has a record to keep! If you have any questions about what to expect, let me know.” In a subtle way, that will tell everyone that beachwear, for example, is inappropriate.
- Plan the right games. You don’t have to have games, of course, but if you want to include some, choose wisely. The Wall Street Journal’s post included a painful anecdote about an employee who shared some awkward and inappropriate personal information during a round of “Two Truths and a Lie” (a game in which you share three statements about yourself, and everyone else tries to guess which is untrue). While that game can be very fun, the post showed that it’s a bit risky when alcohol is involved. Sports also can be problematic. You might think a pickup game of volleyball or flag football would be fun, but if even one person is overly competitive or aggressive, others are likely to become frustrated or injured. Alternatives: Set up relaxed games that everyone can enjoy such as horseshoes and cornhole, or plan a scavenger hunt. The latter would take some prep work but could be a good exercise in teamwork and creativity.
- Be smart about food and drink. Many office party gaffes are to the result of alcohol consumption. Remember, first of all, that you don’t have to provide alcohol. If you do, follow your organization’s policies regarding alcohol at company events, and don’t make it the main focus. If there’s a fully stocked bar but barely anything to eat, people will be more likely to become drunk. Also offer nonalcoholic drinks, including water. That’s especially important if your gathering is outside on a hot day. And if you see that a colleague is inebriated, please don’t let him or her get behind the wheel of a car. Find a designated driver or call the person a cab.
- Consider including children. Not only does that send the message to your team that you value their family time, but it can help ensure that everyone practices good self-control. People are less likely to drink too much or act aggressively or otherwise unprofessionally if children are around. But if you do extend the invitation to families, be ready. Have age-appropriate activities and food prepared.
- Be an example. Just as you set an example in the workplace, do so at any work gathering. If you’re taking full advantage of the open bar “because it’s on the company’s dime,” your team members will feel free to drink a lot too. If you lose your cool during a game of kickball, you’re inviting your team members to take the game too seriously. Being a bad example risks your professional reputation, your team’s and your organization’s—so be smart. And if your spouse or children also will be in attendance, prepare them to model good behavior as well.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen happen at a company event? (Feel free to comment anonymously if you wish.)